Workplace Diversity in 2019: Turning Words Into Action

Blog 67 Final
  • March 1, 2019

Diversity and inclusion were critical to improving workplace cultures in 2018—in fact, not thinking about D&I as core to organizational development led to outright #DiversityFails and hurt business outcomes. The continued #metoo conversation drove organizations and their employees to evaluate and reevaluate how they treat and interact with women. Some companies took strides forward or supported existing diversity initiatives, while others apologized for clearly insensitive actions on behalf of their employees. Human resources departments are broadening their definitions of diversity and seeking to better foster inclusion.

The message is loud and clear: diversity is a baseline requirement for businesses, both for their employees and potential customers and clients. Which is why the question in 2019 is less about why you should start paying attention to D&I, and more about how to better heed and incorporate the demands of diverse workforces and public outcry. Too many companies claim they prioritize workplace diversity, but their policies have no teeth, and real change fails to materialize. Their websites say they’re committed to the concepts, but their actions tell another story.

In 2019, effective and impactful D&I programming is possible for organizations—and their leaders—willing to take bold steps toward eliminating even unintentional biases and embracing the experiences that employees bring to the job. Here are some ways companies can turn words into action in the coming year.

The Role of HR

When diversity and inclusion problems arise, managers often direct employees to talk to HR. However, HR isn’t always prepared to handle such situations, and in worst-case scenarios they can exacerbate the problems. This issue is raised in the upcoming book Diversity Beyond Lip Service: A Coaching Guide for Challenging Bias, by La’Wana Harris. She writes, from the perspective of a character in her book, “I have seen other minority employees reach out to HR or their manager’s manager with very bad results. After they spoke up, they were almost guaranteed to have a target on their backs. Soon after reporting their concerns, they would develop ‘performance issues.’” Unfortunately, this description of HR either passing the buck on or stonewalling diversity and inclusion issues is more the norm than the exception. Whatever the case may be, they’re reinforcing structural biases by not intervening on behalf of employees who feel underrepresented or unheard.

In 2019, HR shouldn’t be sitting on the sidelines, but rather recognizing its potential to effect change. That change may not happen overnight, but companies can take steps to see HR as a diversity ally that can be trusted by employees. In Erasing Institutional Bias: How to Create Systemic Change for Organizational Inclusion, authors Tiffany Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias write, “We may just believe that women and minorities in our workplaces should have the willpower and positive mindset to perform a particular way, but research—data—has shown time and time again that stereotypes are much more powerful than we think.” This year, HR can take the reins by holding space for dialogues about inclusion and by valuing employees and the unique contributions they bring to the organization.

The first step for HR is embracing this responsibility to bolster inclusive workplaces where employees feel as though they can trust HR to hear their experiences, act on their behalf, and surface the sometimes hidden biases that are getting in the way of productive interactions and positive workplaces. HR can put processes in place that ensure safety and trust, but first, they must be open to their role in supporting all employees.

More Than Listening

Listening to your employees is a common theme not only across many diversity and inclusion initiatives, but also in transformational workplace strategies that recognize the importance of an empowered and engaged workforce. If an employee has an idea or insight about how to build a more inclusive company culture or improve a process to focus more on trust, leaders should be listening intently, even if it isn’t technically their job to do so. Listening, acting, and setting goals around diversity and inclusion should happen in a dynamic conversation where employees who feel underrepresented (whether they practice a different religious faith, have different politics, or are people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ+ community) and leadership are continually sharing insights into workplace experiences that vary by person. Moreover, don’t place the onus of “solving” the company’s diversity issues onto concerned (and possibly underrepresented) employees—tokenizing employees can lead to alienation and burnout, and ultimately, it’s leadership’s responsibility to support the initiative of transforming positive workplaces.

Therefore, listening must be accompanied by action to integrate diversity and inclusion into decision-making models. For example, if employees report that they are facing microaggressions (as described in Erasing Institutional Bias) at work, more will need to be done to address the organizational biases that has enabled these ongoing microaggressions. Leaders from across departments, including (and maybe especially) HR, are urgently responsible for making employees feel heard. In that action, companies can build a culture that, with open ears and open minds, invites diversity and inclusion.

Talent Development

Companies are increasing their efforts to bring more diversity into their hiring practices, even going so far as to introduce AI into the process to remove unconscious prejudices. However, a major blindspot remains: developing those diverse employees once they’ve been hired. The institutional biases organizations work so hard to eliminate before someone is brought on board are often never addressed in day-to-day operations, and this can leave minority, women, and LGBTQ employees feeling mired and disillusioned.

Removing such biases from training and development initiatives and encouraging support groups among underrepresented employee segments moves companies closer to a structure in which truly anyone can feel optimistic about their future. Inevitably, diversifying leadership also helps build an organization that prioritizes diversity and inclusion at all phases of an employee’s career. As we’ve mentioned before on the BK blog, everyone’s career path is different, and career conversations should be tailored to each employee’s experience. Taking into account the different ways people interact with one another, organizations can implement inclusive talent development programs, such as women leveraging allies and mentors or encouraging employees to organize employee resource groups (ERGs) to support one another.

What’s at Stake

Diversity and inclusion matter not only for moral and ethical reasons, but also because of financial considerations. A 2018 report by McKinsey & Company found that companies with a high diversity of gender, ethnic, and cultural presence on their executive teams are more likely to experience above-average profitability than their more homogenous competitors. Moreover, top talent that values workplace diversity and inclusion are highly selective about where they work. If an organization fails to impress on this front, that talent will take their skills elsewhere. And, of course, consumer experience and brand image continue to drive D&I.

With 2019 in full swing, the tide continues to turn toward organizations committed to a diverse, inclusive, and, ultimately, innovative workplace philosophy, taking us into the future of equitable work and creating a world that works for all—but we’ve still got a long way to go. As Harris writes in Diversity Beyond Lip Service, “Our understanding of how to attract, retain—and market to—an increasingly diverse and global demographic is virtually the only way to succeed going forward. Continuing to thrive is a matter of embracing what is inevitable. That is why businesses must alter employee demographics so they mirror customers’ profiles. And since the days of enforcing a very narrow standard for success are rapidly receding into the rearview, we must also build inclusive corporate cultures to support our new heterogenous makeups.”

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